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The wind cut like broken glass across Illi’s cheeks, cold and biting and sharp. The carriage thrummed beneath her feet as she and her cousins soared down and away from the bright warmth of the platforms toward the shifting and treacherous sands below. Her eyes watered with the speed. She blinked away the useless tears; she needed to see what was coming.
This time over a dozen guul had emerged from the Wastes. The drums had cut through Illi’s dreams and raced her through the streets, across bridges and platforms, to meet up with her other cousins still bleary with sleep, but strapping on their belts, their swords, their knives. Or, in Dihya’s case, her machete.
Illi leaned against the carriage railing and picked out the guul below, little more than dark blemishes on the sand. Beside her, Zarrat grunted, a stray curl of dark hair escaping from his tagel.
“They always look so small.” He held up a hand and brought his forefinger and thumb together. “Like I could just squish ’em.”
Yaluz leaned next to Zarrat, but still managed to tower above everyone else in the carriage. Once, Yaluz had been the smallest and the fastest of Illi’s cousins. But after the healers had balanced out his blood, he’d grown long and angular. “If only it were that easy.”
Zarrat glanced at Yaluz. “What—I thought you enjoyed this.”
“I do,” said Yaluz. “But I’d enjoy it more if the guul’d had the decency to wait until I’d woke up properly and had my tea.”
“You could’ve stayed back with Hamma,” said Illi. “Four of us is more than enough.”
“What, and miss out on all the fun?” Yaluz’s eyes crinkled in a grin above his tagel. “Yeah but no. It’s just the decency of the situation I take issue with. Besides, Hamma always stays back.”
“Decency.” Dihya snorted. “Just be glad the call wasn’t at midnight.”
“Oh, I would’ve been awake at midnight.”
“What in all the sands were you doing awake then?” Azhar sounded faintly horrified.
“Now what isn’t quite the right question—”
But before Yaluz could finish, the carriage hit the pole with a resounding clank and shuddered to a stop. Illi tightened her grip on the railing to keep her balance, then swung open the carriage gate and dropped the foot or so to the sands. Her cousins followed, a series of soft thumps right behind her as they landed on the ground. Before the carriage stopped swaying, Dihya hit the cable three times with the flat of her machete. A moment later, the ropes on the sides of the carriage went taut and it zipped back upward.
Illi rubbed her hands together, trying to bring feeling back to her cold-numbed fingers. It was only the beginning of winter, but this close to dawn the cold was at its sharpest. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, which was already stiff with snot.
Dihya’s way of keeping warm was to toss her machete from one hand to the other. “Watchmen said thirteen guul, right?”
Illi nodded. “Two for each of you and five for me.”
“Hey, you can’t keep all the fun to yourself,” whined Zarrat.
Illi shot him a grin full of teeth. “Then you’d better keep up.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.” Zarrat fidgeted with his sword, glancing back up the cable. “First one who takes out a guuli gets a round from the rest of us.”
“Thanks,” said Illi.
“For the round.”
Zarrat groaned and Dihya slapped him on the back with a laugh. “You walked right into that one, Zar.”
Azhar chewed her bottom lip, her already pale features somehow paler. She’d pulled her fine dark hair back into a tight bun, but she kept running her fingers through it and now strands of hair floated free, softening her otherwise sharp features. “Is no one else worried that there’s so many this time?”
Silence was her answer. Illi peered up the cable as her cousins shifted uncomfortably. Thirteen was a lot. Thirteen was three more than they’d ever fought at one time. But Illi wasn’t worried about that; she and her cousins were more than enough against the guul.
The bellow of an unhappy camel cut the silence. A heartbeat later, the cable thrummed as it caught the weight and motion of the carriage once more. It was both mere moments and yet hours before the carriage returned, now bearing their mounts.
Then all worries were lost in a flurry of motion; there was no more time left to waste. Illi was the first to help her camel off the carriage. She checked its lead, tucked her soft leather charm beneath her wrap—even with all the guul about, they still had to worry about something as banal as wild jaan—then swung up. Zarrat started to call to her, but she’d already given her camel a hard kick and now leaned forward over its neck as it surged into motion.
Her braids beat a rhythm against her back in time with the camel’s loping stride. She tightened her grip on her sword hilt. Ahead, the dim, morning gray of the sands gave way and she could finally see her marks: a spread of dark blotches that soon resolved into erratic, unnatural monsters. Behind, her cousins fell in and caught up. All around, camel feet thudded like so many drumbeats.
Illi didn’t have to pick her mark. One veered away from its pack and charged on a course to meet her. The guuli was a mess of collected parts it had scavenged from corpses. Sun-bleached bones stuck out from its back like spines. Feathers and scales patterned its body as a vulture’s beak screamed angry recriminations at her. But worse than any of those was the human skull it wore like a mask. Eyes like coals burned in the deep sockets, slicing her bravery into ribbons.
She’d been hunting guul for years now, but they never ceased to send a thrill of fear down her spine. Fear—and resolve. The guul would have to get through her and her cousins if they wanted Ghadid.
Illi squeezed her knees tight and leaned forward as far as she dared. She yanked her camel to the side at the last moment. The guuli’s talons flickered and caught only air. Illi’s sword caught its neck. The human skull flew free, hit the sand. Its too-bright eyes flared like twin lanterns, but they didn’t go out. Illi could feel the guuli’s hate-filled glare as she yanked her camel around and into the path of the next monster.
But before she could reach the guuli, another camel cut her off. Yaluz swung his curved sword and the guuli’s head went flying, its body collapsing to the sand. Yaluz pulled his camel parallel to Illi’s so they were charging alongside each other.
“That one was mine!” shouted Illi.
Yaluz’s only answer was a victorious smile.
To the right, Dihya cut down another guuli with her machete. To the left, Azhar chased down a guuli that was fleeing back west. Ahead, Zarrat let out a loud whoop as he circled his camel around a corpse. Illi was falling behind.
Illi flicked her lead and she and Yaluz broke off and curved back toward the city and the remaining guul. Ghadid loomed ahead, its metal pylons splitting the sky like stalks of grain in a glasshouse, straight and tall and strong. But unlike grain, each of these pylons was topped by a circular platform, which in turn held the stones and life that made up the city. Up there were all the people she was protecting, all the people that relied on her and her cousins to keep them safe. From guul, from bandits—and from themselves.
The sun flickered through those stalks, having just peeked above the horizon. The light dazzled her eyes and made it harder to pick out the hunched, loping forms of the remaining guul, made it more difficult to judge the distance between her and her next mark.
Then the guuli was all but under her camel’s feet. It gargled a cry and swiped claws short but sharp as razors. Her camel roared. Bucked. Illi’s knees lost their grip and she flew. She hit the ground with an oof. Grains of sand flew up her nose and into her open mouth. The wind blew more sand into her ears and eyes. Illi tightened her grip on her sword, but her fingers only closed on air. The sword was no longer in her hand.
A growl. Illi pushed herself up. Her camel was galloping back to Ghadid and safety, but it hadn’t gotten too far. She might still catch it. That was, if it weren’t for the guuli between them. This one had a shattered hip bone in lieu of shoulders and dry, tattered skin still stuck to it in patches. Its head had been taken from a gazelle. Horns as long as Illi’s arms twisted out of the skull.
A glint of metal was the only sign of her sword, a full camel’s length behind the guuli and half buried under the sand. The guuli lowered its head, too-long horns pointed at Illi’s chest. Illi checked her belt but all she had was a small dagger. The guuli charged.
Illi jumped to the side, slashing at the guuli with her dagger, but she might as well have spit at the monster. The guuli continued past, its momentum carrying it a few more feet before it could turn. Illi glanced at her sword, still out of reach. She’d have to chance it, though. Even if she could hurt the guuli with her dagger, only the sword could bind it.
She lunged. The guuli charged again. She heard the clack of its bones and the thin growl in its chest as it came for her. Her feet slipped through sand. The sword was still impossibly far. She wasn’t going to reach her weapon in time.
And then—a flash of green. A grunt. A wet sound. Of flesh. Of blood.
The guuli never reached Illi.
She picked up her sword and turned but it was too late. Yaluz was between Illi and the guuli. His own sword dropped from limp fingers as a dark stain spread across the back of his wrap. A piece of white stuck out of the stain’s center: the guuli’s horn. Yaluz groaned and folded forward as his knees gave out from under him. The wind swept the coppery tang of blood to Illi.
Somebody screamed. Illi wasn’t sure if it was her or Yaluz. Her ears rang and her vision narrowed. It was happening again, it was happening again. She’d watched her cousin Ziri die the same way, gutted by a dead man with a spear. And now she was going to lose Yaluz.
But no—no, she wasn’t. Illi forced herself to focus. The horn hadn’t gone through Yaluz’s middle, but his side. He could live. He would live.
The guuli’s horn was stuck. The monster tugged, jerking Yaluz back with it. The guuli’s hands came up, covering Yaluz’s head as if in an embrace, but Illi knew it meant to snap his neck. She wasn’t about to let that happen.
She freed a dagger from her belt with shaking fingers and sighted along the blade’s edge. Two steps back and a half turn. She breathed out. Threw. The dagger caught the guuli’s upper arm. With a shriek, the guuli let go of Yaluz’s head, but he was still stuck to its horn. Yaluz let out a low moan. He was still alive. As long as Illi could get to him and stabilize him, he’d survive. First, she had to remove the guuli.
The sand sucked at Illi’s feet, but she fought to cross the distance between her and the guuli, trailing curses behind her. The monster pulled the dagger from its arm and tossed it away. Illi slid the last few feet and raised her sword. She brought it down hard on its neck. The blade bit through bone and flesh and something else, something sticky and resistant. The words carved into the blade’s metal flared with darkness, and cold bit into her fingers, deeper than winter. Illi held tight and then the blade was through and the guuli’s body fell away.
Unsupported, Yaluz sank to his knees. His fingers scrabbled at the horn piercing his side, but they slipped through blood, unable to gain purchase. His breathing was ragged and uneven and his wrap was torn. Illi kicked the guuli’s body out of her way and grabbed its severed head by the base of its skull. She pulled.
Yaluz screamed. The horn came out by a few inches, then all at once. Illi fell back, hitting the sand with the skull held in front of her. Its bright eyes met her gaze, unblinking. Disgusted, Illi tossed the skull away. She scrambled across the sand to Yaluz, trying and failing and trying again to unhook the water skin from her belt.
Yaluz’s wrap was soaked with blood, turning it from a vibrant green to a sickly brown. His breathing was shallow and strained, but Illi didn’t mark any gurgle or sounds of wetness. So his lungs hadn’t been pierced. But other organs might have been, which was secondary to the amount of blood Yaluz was currently pumping onto the sand. Already his soil-dark skin had an unhealthy gray sheen.
Illi dropped her sword and undid the knot of her water skin with trembling fingers. Dust, there was so much blood. She’d watched people bleed out from wounds both shallow and deep, and yet the amount of blood a body could hold always surprised her. She used a dagger to tear a long, wide strip from her wrap and pulled Yaluz’s wrap back. The fabric was already growing stiff with dried blood, but more blood just kept pumping out. She peeled the fabric away layer by layer until she reached skin. She wadded up one of the pieces of fabric into a ball and applied pressure to the wound.
It wouldn’t be enough. Yaluz’s eyes fluttered, now open and watching, now closed. He was fighting to stay conscious and losing. Time was hissing past and if Illi didn’t do something, now, Yaluz wouldn’t make it to the carriage, let alone to a real healer. He had to live, he had to, if only so Illi could berate him later for trying to save her.
Illi poured water into her palm, but she was shaking so badly that she spilled half of it. Yaluz sighed and closed his eyes. His breath rasped and hitched and his fingers twitched and—
Smoke stuck in Illi’s nose, burning through the stench of death. The stones were warm beneath her hands. Distantly, she heard yells, cries, and screams. Illi bent over another body, this one already dead. Illi hadn’t been fast enough and now those open eyes stared at her, an unblinking accusation. Illi closed those eyes. Stood.
Or at least, tried to stand.
The body spasmed. The fingers twitched, closed around her wrist. The eyes opened, but they were lifeless and glazed. The corpse dragged itself upright, a hiss gurgling in its throat. It wrapped its fingers around her neck.
Illi screamed. She kept screaming even as she remembered where she was—on the sands, far from that night of horror, safe, safe, safe—
An arm wrapped around her chest and pulled her close. “Shh. It’s okay. You’re okay. Breathe, Illi. Breathe. Be here.”
The scream fizzled and died. Illi gasped for breath. She wanted to turn and bury her head in her savior’s chest, to let the fabric of their wrap muffle the world for a few precious seconds. But she didn’t have a few seconds. Yaluz needed her. Illi couldn’t let her cousin die because he’d been stupid enough to try and save her. She pushed the arm away.
“I have to—”
She looked up into honey-warm eyes and a broad face: Dihya. Her features had softened, but the grim severity would always be there, etched into the lines of her face by that same night seven years ago that was etched into Illi’s mind. Dihya had lost everything, too. Yet here she was, not falling apart. Why couldn’t Illi be that strong?
Deep breath. Focus. Yaluz needed her. Illi poured water into her palm and this time it didn’t spill. She breathed out and with the ease of years of practice, pushed all her thoughts away. It was just her, the water, and Yaluz. She closed her eyes and, with more than just her hands, reached out.
She felt the wound in Yaluz’s side like a gap in a weave. Natural-born and more experienced healers would have been able to close that gap, but Illi’s healing was as clumsy as a novice’s, even after years of practice. All she could do was stop the bleeding. That would have to be enough.
She opened her eyes. The water in her palm was gone. A blue haze still lingered on her arms and across Yaluz’s chest, but that vanished in another heartbeat. She met Dihya’s gaze.
Dihya stooped and picked Yaluz up, cradling him like a baby. “I’ll take him back,” she said. “Take my camel and get those last guul.”
She didn’t wait for Illi’s response. Dihya turned, found the nearest cable, and started running, feet sinking deep into the sand with each step. Illi always envied Dihya’s strength and speed, but now she was also jealous of her cousin’s ability to keep it together. Not once in their years fighting the guul had Illi ever seen Dihya lose her composure. Not like Illi just had.
Illi took a deep breath, willing the shaking in her hands to cease. She stood and picked out the remaining guul. She wasn’t finished yet. She’d never be finished, not until every last guuli had been quieted. And the Wastes were yet full of them.
So until then—
Illi pulled herself onto Dihya’s camel and marked the nearest guuli. It never saw her coming.
“The way you got that first guuli, Illi—wham.” Zarrat mimicked the motion with his mug, spilling date wine on the floor. “That was pure beauty.”
Illi smiled, but her lips felt numb, her face stiff. “If you actually come to train with us, I can teach you how.”
Zarrat waved his fingers dismissively, pale eyes twinkling over the top of his brown tagel. More curls were loose now, but this time they were strategic. He’d never seemed to fully get the point of wearing a tagel. “Why mess with a good thing? I got the pattern down. It’s not like the guul are going to suddenly learn how to parry or block. How many were there this time, anyway? I always lose count.”
Azhar wove her fingers around her mug. “Thirteen. I think that’s a new record.”
“You’re not wrong,” said Dihya, leaning into Zarrat. “The number of guul has increased over the last few months. We should consider training more cousins.”
“That’s a problem for another day,” declared Zarrat. “Right now, we’re celebrating. Did you hear? There’s a caravan, finally. They’re setting up the market now. It’ll be up this afternoon. Are you going? I’ll be there tonight, at least.…”
Illi only half listened to Zarrat as she turned her mug around and around, still as full as it’d been when the server had set it down. She wouldn’t have asked for date wine, but someone from the crowd thronging them had already paid for it. Someone always did. In another moment, there’d be real food, too, more than just the plain rolls that sat untouched in the middle of their table. Just the thought of a bowl of hot porridge filled her with longing. In all the excitement of the morning, it’d been easy to forget to eat. But now that the nerves were a memory, her hunger reminded her she hadn’t had anything since last night.
She picked at a roll while scanning the crowd for a server. But a flash of bright yellow tagel on a tall figure caught her off guard. She shook her head to clear the confusion. It wasn’t Yaluz. He was with the healers.
“Has anybody checked on Yaluz?” she asked.
The mood at the table immediately grew somber and Zarrat’s chatter stumbled and died.
“He’s sleeping,” said Dihya. “He’ll be all right.”
Dihya patted Illi’s arm comfortingly, but Illi didn’t feel comforted. She’d lost herself down there on the sands, completely forgotten where and when she was. She stared at the grain of the table’s veneer, tracing her finger along one tight whorl. She swallowed, but she couldn’t get rid of the lump lodged in her throat. It’d been her fault after all. She’d messed up and Yaluz had helped her and that help had nearly got him killed. Illi pressed her finger hard against the center of the whorl, shaped not unlike the eye of a guuli.
A woman approached from the crowd to thank them. Dihya edged away, eyes downcast, but Zarrat welcomed the attention. He was a former slave, and even though he’d been part of a drum chief’s household and trained in all the right decorum, he occasionally acted like an iluk fresh off the sands. But he’d fought alongside everyone else during the Siege, and when the surviving drum chiefs had formally freed any remaining slaves, he’d chosen to join their makeshift militia of cousins and volunteers.
Thana called all of the newcomers cousins, but Illi couldn’t. Not yet. Not when they hadn’t bloodied their hands. Maybe not ever.
“Thirteen guul,” repeated Azhar. She was an iluk, an Azali whose tribe had helped the refugees survive until they could reclaim their city. She had helped rebuild, had fallen for a marabi, and decided to stay. She was proficient with the sword, so when the guul began to arrive from the west, she’d been one of the first to volunteer. “On top of the ten from last week and the eight before that—where are they all coming from?”
“You know where,” said Dihya darkly. “The Wastes must be full of corpses.”
“Yes, but why?” said Azhar. “Why do they keep coming here? And more and more each time? What will we do if there’re twenty? Thirty? Fifty of them?”
“We’ll stop them all,” said Illi.
“Really? Us against fifty?” pressed Azhar. “We’ll die.”
“Then we’ll die protecting Ghadid.” Illi stood, the bread like dust in her mouth. She pocketed a second roll for later. “I’ll see you at training tonight.”
Zarrat broke away from his growing circle of admirers. “But we take the night off on hunt days.”
“You might,” said Illi.
“There’s a market,” whined Zarrat.
“I’m not stopping you,” said Illi. “Enjoy your night off.”
She left the table and her still-full mug of date wine. Zarrat would drink it.
Dihya caught up to her just outside. “Hey—are you okay?” She put her hand on Illi’s shoulder. “I know Zarrat can be … dense. But you’ve got to give him some slack. He’s not like us.”
Illi bit her tongue. Zarrat wasn’t just not like them, he wasn’t them. He wasn’t a cousin, he hadn’t been there when they’d lost Ziri, when the Serpent had given her life, when Dihya had put an ax through her best friend’s neck. He’d never understand and he never could. But Dihya knew all that just as well as Illi did; after all, it was exactly that innocence that had drawn Dihya to him.
“It’s not that.” Illi forced a smile. “I’m okay.”
Dihya’s frown only deepened, her eyes searching Illi’s. “In case you forgot, I was there, too.”
Illi didn’t know which Dihya meant: that she’d been on the sands when Illi broke down or that she’d been beside Illi during the Siege. It didn’t matter.
“It’s okay not to be okay,” said Dihya. “You don’t have to be strong all the time, Illi. No one is, trust me.”
“I’m okay,” repeated Illi. “I just—panicked. But that’s in the past. Everything’s in the past. We have to be prepared for the future.”
But Dihya still wasn’t leaving her alone. “You’re not yourself. Really, if you want to talk about it—”
“I’m fine,” snapped Illi. She took a deep breath and let it out. Smiled. “Really. I’ve gotta get those skulls to Heru before he gets cranky, okay? I’ll see you tonight.”
“We’re taking tonight off,” said Dihya. “We all need the break. You should, too. You’re not invincible, you know.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Illi didn’t stay for any further protests. How could any of them think about rest or celebration? Yaluz had nearly died. And it had been Illi’s fault. She needed to be faster. More resilient. She needed to train harder.
She had to be prepared in case the Siege happened again.
* * *
The sack over her shoulder clattered with each step, like a bag full of awkwardly shaped, overly large dice. Inside were the skulls of the guul they’d felled today. Illi had to keep shifting her grip. The sack was more awkward than heavy; empty skulls didn’t weigh much, even thirteen of them. But she’d already brought them all the way up from the sands and now she had to carry them across the city and even the light weight began to drag on her.
Around her, a market was being set up and the crowd was already dense. Offers to help with the sack were flung at her almost as frequently as offers of food, but Illi shrugged them all off, kept her sight on the ground, and walked faster. Somebody patted her arm and praised G-d for her bravery on the sands. Illi muttered something that she hoped sounded like thanks but didn’t look up.
Zarrat might drink in the praise and adoration, but Illi couldn’t stand it. They were cousins. This was just a part of who they were.
The city withdrew and empty echoes replaced the cries from the market as Illi crossed more bridges and pressed farther west, into its heart. Or what used to be its heart. The Siege had taken more than half Ghadid’s population and even with the freed slaves and the influx of iluk it would be many generations before they could breathe life into these platforms. The drum chiefs had unanimously decided to focus their rebuilding efforts on just those platforms they needed. That focus had meant abandoning the western half of Ghadid. That it was also the side closest to the Wastes and the guul invasions probably had leant weight to that choice.
But just because they’d been abandoned didn’t mean they were empty. Those who needed space, those who needed solitude, and those who had simply lost too much cultivated their existence in the burned-out shells of buildings and homes here. Illi knew many of them because she’d lived here, too, at first. After the Siege, it’d been the only place she’d felt safe. But she’d grown tired of the silence and the cold and eventually accepted Thana and Mo’s standing invitation to share their home.
The wind blew through open doorways and across vacant streets. Even though she’d once made her home here, the emptiness now sent a shiver up her spine. She touched the soft leather of her charm, but it remained only as warm as her skin. On the sands, the emptiness and quiet were natural, expected. But up here, the hollow echoes were a vivid reminder of all that had been—and all that had been lost.
Yet even in this desolate place, Illi still found hope. The abandoned platforms were more than the homes of the broken and the lost—they were also the perfect place for a reclusive and cantankerous en-marabi to set up his lab.
Heru Sametket. He’d traveled to Ghadid to broker their surrender to his Empire. Instead, he’d helped Thana tackle a sajaami and kill his Empress. It should have been enough to earn their trust, but Heru’s insistence on continuing to study and practice the en-marabi art of jaan binding meant that the rest of Ghadid shunned him. Even in changed times, outright blasphemy wasn’t acceptable.
So here he was. Far from the heart of the city. Alone. Forgotten, until Ghadid needed him again.
Illi could understand that.
The difference between Heru’s platform and the others was subtle at first. Elsewhere in Ghadid, and even more so in the abandoned half, unswept sand slipped beneath her sandals, but as she crossed this platform the grains disappeared and the stones were smooth.
Once she reached the center, the difference became far less subtle. Before Heru had moved in, this platform had been like all the others in Ghadid’s abandoned half: coated with old blood, gray with ash, and smeared with dust. The stones had blended together into one gray and black blur. But now, each stone was scrubbed clean, their mottled browns and faded reds laid bare to the sky.
Around the circle, all of the doorways were empty, the fabric that used to cover them long burned or repurposed. All—except one. In the center of a row of doorways, a length of white cloth covered one entrance. The cloth was free of dust or stains or dirt, an impossible white that blazed in the morning sun, unavoidable and unmistakable: a signal or a warning, but never an invitation.
Illi reached the white fabric, but didn’t go in. She paused and knocked on the wall next to it. Then she counted under her breath, listening.
Something bubbled and clanged inside, but no one appeared at the door. Upon reaching the count of ten, Illi drew the cloth aside. When no reprimand was flung her way, she entered. She let go of the cloth and it fell back into place, weighted on the bottom to keep the wind out.
Even though she’d been here many times, her first breath of Heru’s lab was overwhelming. Equipment choked the room, but every piece had its place. Glass bowls and glass beakers and glass vials lined shelves along the walls and benches in the center of the room. Every surface was free of fingerprints or smudges, the stone floor swept clear of any specks of sand, and even the air held a slightly sweet, slightly bitter medicinal edge. A fire ran hot in the hearth, its heat kept at bay by a thick pane of glass.
And at the center of it all hung the orb, snug in a corona of light.
As it did every time, the orb drew her gaze. As Illi came farther into the room, the glass flask floating in the orb’s center slowly filled with a thick, warm glow. Thin, dark, looping script smothered the flask and flavored its light. Water separated the flask from the orb and kept them both safe. The orb itself hung by a metal chain from the high ceiling, twisting and turning even in the absence of a breeze.
The light built to a blaze that cut shadows sharp and firm. Across the room, hunched over a bench, his hands occupied with two bowls, Heru looked up. One eye focused first on the flask, then across at Illi. His other eye didn’t move; it was glass. Heru hadn’t bothered trying to match the glass eye to his original, so instead of a mild brown, its iris was a circle of gold with black lines radiating out from the pupil like a miniature sun. His white wrap hung off of him like it might a skeleton, the pale mourning color doing little to improve his already wan complexion. His white tagel barely covered his mouth, an affectation more than an attempt at modesty.
Heru had specified at the beginning of their association that she get the skulls to him within a half day; longer than that risked failure of the simple binding that kept the guul from escaping and finding new bodies. It was still midafternoon and therefore well within that time frame. But she didn’t correct him. She’d only made that mistake once.
Heru finished what he was doing, then wiped his hands off on a cloth and walked around his bench. “Bring them here, girl. How many guul were subdued today?”
Illi heaved the bag onto the bench, the skulls clattering within. “Thirteen.”
Heru nodded to himself. “As I thought.”
Heru narrowed his eye. “Of course. The number has been increasing, even if at an uneven rate. It appears to jump every few months. The last jump was predicted by the formula I’d devised and now it has been confirmed.”
“So Azhar is right, the attacks really are increasing.” Illi rested her hands on top of the bench. “Why?”
“The increase was subtle enough at first to be missed by anyone less meticulous, but yes.” Heru reached into the bag and gingerly extracted a skull. He set it with overt care on the bench, as if it were made out of flawed glass instead of bone. “While we might have started out with just one or two errant guul in the beginning, this last year has proven that we should no longer consider that our baseline. All recent, available data indicates we are on a path of exponential growth, which means these skulls are becoming more and more indispensable.”
Heru laid out each of the thirteen skulls on the metal bench. Blazing eyes tracked Heru as he moved, and when he was done, he basked in their collective, hateful gazes. Illi stood to one side, out of the guul’s immediate line of sight. Still, the hair on the back of her neck rose. Although she’d seen the skulls like this over a dozen times, it never failed to unnerve her. Taking the head off a body should be deadly. Yet the Siege had broken even that rule.
Thankfully, Heru’s magic—which he called “science” or “research”—sealed these guul within the bodies they’d stolen. He’d done it ostensibly to keep Ghadid safe, but Illi understood him well enough now to know that he never did something unless it benefited him, too. That didn’t matter to her, so long as the end result was the same.
The first time the guul had attacked, her cousins had met them and met them well. But when they’d separated head from body, a buzzing darkness had rushed out: the guul itself. After all, guul were only jaan that had realized they could build bodies instead of destroying them. They still wanted form, a body to protect them from the elements.
And there had been so many bodies nearby.
No one had died or been permanently driven mad that day, but they’d come too close. Heru had been able to extract the guul from the possessed cousins before they’d burned up from within, although his concern had been for the maddened spirits instead of their hosts. Then he’d disappeared for two weeks before reappearing with a solution: the words engraved on their swords.
Now, instead of spilling into the air, the guul became stuck in their pillaged bodies. Usually the head, but occasionally the odd body part. Illi had once collected a very angry femur. She was the only one who’d been willing to bring back the skulls for Heru. No one else dared venture so deep into the abandoned platforms, or so close to an en-marabi, no matter the good he did.
But Illi had lived in the emptiness and she knew Heru for what he was: eccentric, driven, but mostly harmless. Out of all the people in Ghadid, she’d never once worried about him. Heru Sametket had always known exactly what he was doing, and even the wounds he sustained were intentional. Like every other en-marabi, he strove for immortality, a way to tie the jaani to the body and sustain them both indefinitely. His goal might be blasphemous, but he wasn’t dangerous. At least, no more so than what Illi had already been through.
Heru’s lab was the only place in Ghadid where Illi felt safe, where she could relax and stop worrying, if only for a moment, that the Siege could happen again. As long as Heru was here, as long as Heru was working, it never would. The more respectable marab who stuck to quieting jaan and performing funerals couldn’t promise her that.
Heru broke his reverent silence with a sudden breath. Before he could bark his order, Illi had already brought him a knife, a metal bowl, and a folded cloth. Beside the cloth, she set a bread roll she’d grabbed from the inn, now cold; Heru often forgot to eat. He gave her an appreciative nod, then pulled a tray from beneath the bench. Neatly arrayed clay bowls and a rack of stoppered vials filled the tray.
Each bowl was about the size of Illi’s palm and held finely ground powders. Some Illi had figured out—they were dried herbs or spices, colorful salts, and sand as fine as dust. Some still eluded her and some worried her—the dark red powder that smelled like sweet copper, for one. Heru rarely explained what he was doing, but that didn’t stop Illi from watching closely. She’d learned a lot that way.
Heru took the metal bowl and splashed water into it from the skin at his hip. Then he took a pinch of this and a scoop of that and swirled it into the water until it had dispersed or dissolved. Finally, he took the knife, rolled back his sleeve, and cut his forearm.
The slice brimmed red with blood, which he let drip, counting under his breath, into the bowl. Once he had seven drops, he tied a clean white cloth around his arm, tightening its knot with his teeth. The cut would heal, becoming another scar to add to his collection. He shook his arm and his sleeve fell back into place, hiding the pale scar tissue that covered his skin like spiderwebs.
The liquid in the bowl had assumed an unhealthy sheen. He unstopped a vial and scooped some of the liquid into it. Then he covered the vial with his thumb and shook it. The liquid shimmered, gray and oily.
“Give me a hand,” he ordered. Then his gaze flicked to Illi and the very corner of his mouth, just visible above his tagel, twitched with what might be amusement. “Or perhaps I should say: Give me a skull. Because, see, you might otherwise attempt to give me an actual hand, which would be less than ideal.”
As with every time Heru attempted a joke, Illi wasn’t sure if she should laugh or not, so she didn’t. Instead she grabbed the skull by its short, curved horns and held it in front of her as Heru pried apart its teeth and spilled the liquid into its mouth. There was nothing stopping the liquid from sloshing through the skull’s gaping neck hole onto Illi’s sandals, yet her feet remained dry. Instead, the skull vibrated in her hands and let out a whining shriek so high-pitched it made her teeth itch.
Heru worked smoothly and efficiently, his movements perfected through the hundreds of times he’d performed this same act. He replaced the empty vial in the rack, then pulled a clear glass sphere from his pocket. The sphere was hardly bigger than his remaining eye. He set it between the skull’s jaws and muttered unintelligible words.
The skull shook harder, but Illi had expected that. She held on. Then all at once, darkness swarmed around the skull, buzzing and thick like a swarm of locusts. It pulsed outward, once, twice, before being sucked into the glass sphere. Then the darkness was gone and the skull felt oddly empty and light in a way that had little to do with weight.
The sphere, on the other hand, glowed almost as bright as the flask above them. The glow faded until the glass held nothing but a murky red smear.
Heru set the sphere in its own bowl. His eye roamed over the remaining skulls as he grabbed the next vial. Illi set the empty skull on the table and picked up the next. Together, in practiced silence, they repeated the procedure on the other twelve skulls.
Thirteen guul became thirteen empty skulls and in turn thirteen murky red spheres. Heru placed the spheres into a woven basket and tied a scrap of leather over the top. Then he unlocked a chest at the back of the room, spilling a bloody red glow across the floor. He set the basket inside and closed the lid before Illi could get a better look, but she knew what was in there: seven years’ worth of guul attacks and over a hundred more spheres.
The lid clicked as Heru locked it. He hesitated, his palms on the top of the trunk. When he stood, it was as if he were a vulture unfolding from its kill. His eye found Illi and he frowned, as if he’d forgotten she was there. Then the eye tracked upward, squinting against the light from the flask. His eyebrows came together in a thoughtful expression.
“I should go,” said Illi, already backing toward the doorway.
“Yes,” said Heru, not quite listening. “Yes, of course.”
By the time Illi reached the curtain, Heru had turned back to his table. He’d grabbed a roll of parchment and was leaning over it, scritch-scritching with a pen. He’d already forgotten her.
Copyright © 2020 by K. A. Doore